"Darfur Now" isn't another documentary about the genocide in western Sudan. It's about what some people are trying to do to stop that genocide, and how you and I might try, too, if we could ever get off our duffs and past our atrocity fatigue. Slick, impassioned, and guardedly upbeat, Ted Braun's film is a morale booster aimed at US audiences rather than the 2.5 million displaced Sudanese tribespeople whose villages have been destroyed and families slaughtered. That we need a pick-me-up more than they do is pathetic, but there you are.
Braun focuses on six individuals coming at the crisis from different directions and in different countries. In the Hamadea camp near the border with Chad, Ahmed Mohammed Abakar serves as the local sheik; himself a refugee, he's the fixer for 47,000 people desperate for safety and services. Hejewa Adam is a former villager who has joined the rebel forces after the Janjaweed militia killed her 3-month-old son; to her, "fighting is normal, like drinking water."
In the Hague, prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo of the International Criminal Court sifts the evidence as he prepares indictments and arrest warrants against the Sudanese officials who unleashed the Janjaweed. Pablo Recalde, a relief worker from Ecuador, organizes trucks to ferry 40,000 tons of food per month to the refugee camps; it's a good day when his convoys aren't hijacked.
In the States, UCLA grad Adam Sterling hands out fliers to bladers on Venice Beach and agitates for the passage of a bill that would force California to divest from Sudan. In nearby Hollywood, actor Don Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda") uses his celebrity status and famous friends like George Clooney to bring attention to the region, despairing of the US government's lack of initiative. "We're the highest-ranking delegation to visit [the region]," Cheadle stews. "That's embarrassing."
"Darfur Now" tosses up a few eye-opening details: For instance, China buys more than 60 percent of Sudan's oil and thus has a vested interest in supporting the government, allegedly with arms as well as economic measures. The film isn't above scorn, either: Sudan's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, is a bureaucrat out of central casting as he dismisses the genocide as "a tribal conflict" and cluelessly insists that US politicians raise the issue only to curry favor with black voters.
Great filmmaking this isn't; the director strives for advocacy instead of art, and he achieves it at the expense of nuance and balance. Yet Braun's earnestness is confrontational in unexpected ways. As stirring as the stories from Darfur are, it's Sterling's conversion from callow college kid to political in-fighter taking his divestment bill all the way to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's office that's the most pointed and relevant to the film's argument.
That argument is simple: You can do it too, dude, so why don't you want to? "If we bottle half the enthusiasm that gets people to phone into 'American Idol,' it's a done deal," says Sterling in youthful optimism. Leave it to Moreno-Ocampo, an Argentine junta survivor, to sound a less rosy note about the ICC's ability to prosecute war criminals. "If this court is not working well," he says, "in 25 years the world will be like Darfur."